A master of understatement might say that Preston is rather proud of Sir Tom Finney. When his knighthood was announced last year, the Lancashire Evening Post printed a 48-page tribute. And North End's deputy chairman was not being over-sentimental when he said "for the town's senior citizens, it is the news they've been waiting for for many a year."
The object of this veneration is a spry 76-year-old with a kindly pink face and snow-white hair, a little plumper than the 10-stone waif who left defenders kicking air and was described by no less a judge than Bill Shankly - who played alongside him in the Preston team between 1946 and 1949 - as "probably the greatest footballer who will ever be born." The story goes that when George Best was at his peak, Shankly was asked if he thought Best was a better player than Finney. "Aye he is, just about," growled Shankly. "But don't forget that Tom is 50-odd."
It seems incongruous, in a way, that such a homely, unassuming man should have inspired so many cracking after-dinner anecodotes, one of the best of which is told by another old Preston team-mate, Tommy Docherty. When I remind him of it, Finney chuckles.
"That one's quite true," he says. "Tommy came down from Celtic, and had a fairly good season with us. In those days we used to line up in the corridor before going in to the manager to find out our terms for the following year. I went in to see Bill Scott, the manager, and he said I'd be on the same terms as the year before, pounds 12 a week during the season, and pounds 10 a week in the summer, which was known as 12-and-10. Tommy went in after me, and was told he'd be on 12-and-eight. `I'm not signing,' he said. `I've just found out that Finney's on 12-and-10.' The manager couldn't believe it. `But Finney's a far better player than you,' he said. `Not in the bloody summer he's not,' Tommy said."
Tom Finney grew up in a council house near Deepdale, and first displayed his sublime skills in 30-a-side kickabouts on a potholed patch of waste ground. His father, an electricity board clerk, had him apprenticed to a firm of plumbers when he was 14. The following year, Preston North End invited him to join the ground staff, but his father said he had to finish his apprenticeship first. He was devastated, but the old man was right. Tom Finney Ltd, set up just after the war, eventually employed 60 staff, and has given Finney - who hung up his boots in 1960, the year before football's pounds 20-a-week maximum wage was abolished - a comfortable retirement.
He finally joined the Preston ground staff in 1937, and was inside-left in the under-18 team until one fateful day when he stood in for the injured outside-right and played a blinder. When Preston won the 1940-41 FA Cup final against Arsenal - a victory wiped from the official records by the war - Finney was on the right wing, tormenting the Arsenal and England captain and full-back, Eddie Hapgood. A year later he was conscripted into the army.
"I was stationed at Catterick, and actually played seven or eight games with Newcastle, who got fantastic gates of 40,000-odd even in wartime. I also played a game or two for Southampton when I was down at Tidworth. With players moving all over the show in the forces, you used to approach the nearest club and say `any chance of a game?' sort of thing. When I came home on leave, I'd get a game for Preston, although the ground here was a prisoner-of-war camp so we had to play at the Leyland Motors ground.
"Then I was posted overseas for three years, and played in Italy with the Eighth Army team. It was a very strong side. We had Stan Cullis at centre-half, and Bryn Jones, who'd been sold for a record fee to Arsenal just before the war, and I remember we played the Polish XI and the RAF XI. In Egypt I played with The Wanderers who had some very good games against King Farouk's XI, which was quite an eye-opener, because one or two of them played in bare feet with bandages round their ankles."
In 1947, the England manager, Walter Winterbottom, experimented by moving Finney to outside-left. If Glenn Hoddle's experiments had worked half as spectacularly, he could have claimed to be the reincarnation of John the Baptist and still retained public support. For with Finney on the left wing and Stanley Matthews on the right, England went to Portugal and won 10-0.
Over the next few years, a debate raged in the nation's pubs - was Finney better than Matthews? As with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in another sport, the consensus now seems to be that Matthews had more charisma, but Finney was the better player. At the time, the press stoked up the debate into a bitter personal rivalry, which Finney robustly denies. "No, no. We were friends, me and Stan. We travelled down to England games together. And he called to congratulate me when I got the knighthood."
Both men were playing in April 1948 when England beat Scotland 2-0 in front of 130,000 at Hampden Park and Finney scored what he considers to be his most memorable goal, a screamer from the edge of the area. And they were both playing the following month when England went to Turin and overwhelmed Italy, the World Cup holders, 4-0. But Matthews was absent in April 1952, when England held Italy 1-1 in Florence. Finney sparkled that day, and afterwards received a message that the president of the Sicilian club Palermo wanted to see him.
"He offered me a pounds 10,000 signing-on fee, pounds 120 a week, a house and a car. I was on pounds 14 a week at the time, and I must say I was very tempted. My room-mate Ivor Broadis couldn't believe his ears. I came home and told the chairman of Preston, a man called Nat Buck, who was in the building trade and had a broad Lancashire accent. He said `I'll tell thee now, if tha doesn't play for us, tha doesn't play for anyone.' And that was the end of it. A year or so after, John Charles moved over there. He was the first. But my kids were young and it would have caused a lot of problems. I've never regretted it."
Eighteen months later, Finney was injured for what was to be a historic meeting with Hungary. England had never lost at Wembley, and their 6-3 trouncing had seismic reverberations in the English game. Finney remembers the occasion well.
"The Hungarians came out 20 minutes before to warm up - we'd never seen that before. The little fellow Puskas was doing all sorts of fancy things with the ball, balancing it on his back and whatnot. They played with a deep-lying centre-forward and we'd never seen that either. Manchester City went and copied it with Don Revie as a deep-lying centre-forward and he caused all sorts of problems. Oh yes. It was a shock to some people to find we were not only not the best team in the world, we weren't even the best team in Europe. We started questioning the 2-3-5 formation, which we'd always taken for granted."
Finney was fit for the return match in Budapest. "I've never played against such a good side. We lost 7-1 and it was racehorses against carthorses. It was quite a nice day and Ivor Broadis said it was the first time he'd ever had a sunburnt tongue, because he spent all afternoon haring up and down with his tongue hanging out."
If the 1953 Hungarians were the greatest team Finney ever encountered, who was the greatest player he ever saw? He doesn't hesitate. "The player I have admired more than any other was Di Stefano from Real Madrid." And what about the modern game? "I like Giggs and Beckham very much. And I think the lad at Arsenal, Overmars, is a good two-footed player, a very, very similar player to what I was. But I am saddened that the game is not as wide as it was. The number of times I see a man shape up to take a fella on, then give a pass inside. We used to love one-on-one situations, with only one man to get past. When it happens these days, the commentator goes on as if he's just seen a Martian. Giggs goes past people, and McManaman used to, but I do think pace was used better in our day."
Whether or not Finney is right, it is a sobering thought that he earned less in an entire career than some inferior players now earn in a week. You have to take account of more than inflation to get from pounds 20 a week in 1959 to pounds 30,000 a week in 1999. But characteristically, he expresses no bitterness. "The only thing that disappoints me is that players don't seem to honour contracts any more," he says.
In peacetime, Finney only once played for a British club other than Preston. In 1963, he was tempted out of retirement by George Eastham, manager of the Northern Ireland side, Distillery, who had been drawn in the European Cup against mighty Benfica. With 41-year-old Finney at centre-forward, Distillery held Benfica - including the great Eusebio - to a remarkable 3-3 draw. "I played fairly well," recalls Finney. In well over an hour, this is as near as he gets to boasting. And yet, as I watch him climb into his car and rejoin the traffic on Sir Tom Finney Way, I reflect that there is nobody in football with more to boast about.Reuse content